KU Staff Member Wins Harvard Grant to Document Nuns’ Environmental Activism

Kansas City infoZine
July 27, 2011

In north central Kansas, a group of nuns is fighting for the Earth. Rachel Myslivy intends to tell their story before it's lost to the ages.

Myslivy, research assistant at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, has won a grant to document the environmental activism of the Sisters of St. Joseph at the Nazareth Convent and Academy in Concordia, Kansas. Myslivy won the grant as a result of a project she undertook in a grant proposal writing class she took through KU's tuition assistance program, which pays for one class per semester for KU staff members. The grant is from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Around research grants every day in her job, Myslivy, a Great Bend native, thought it would be a good idea to take the grant proposal writing course to further her knowledge of research funding.

"I've worked on grants and written and edited grants," Myslivy said. "I thought taking the class would be good both for my professional classifications and for my own research interests."

The class, taught by Christine Jensen Sundstrom, director of the Graduate Writing Program, and Ron Wilson, lecturer in film and media studies, required students to write a grant proposal for a project they were interested in. Myslivy had previously taken part in a project to document oral history of religion in Kansas, led by Tim Miller, professor of religious studies. She saw the importance of collecting stories, and had spoken with Sister Bernadine Pacta, one of the nuns in Concordia.

"Environmental themes kept popping up in our conversation. She started telling me about the importance of recycling, composting, eating low on the food chain and so on," Myslivy said. "The effects of environmental degradation, over-consumption and pollution are most directly felt by the poor. The sisters see protecting the Earth as a primary means of protecting those who need it most."

Myslivy's great aunt, Sister Susan Kongs, is also a member of the convent. She told her about the sister's community efforts, including leading a garden in which local citizens can rent space to grow their own food, screening of films about the world's food supply and other work. The religious aspect combined with the environmental concern appealed to Myslivy, who lives on a small farm with her husband and two daughters. They use all organic methods and grow food they use throughout the year.

She then learned of grants available through the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and decided it was the grant she would write her proposal for.

"I sent my application off thinking, 'Oh why not? I'm not even a full-time grad student yet, but I should try it,'" she said. "Thankfully I got it. Now I can go back and get the rest of their stories."

The grant, which was open to applicants from across the nation, will pay for Myslivy to travel to Concordia and document the nuns' environmental and spiritual work. She'll make at least two trips there this summer to interview the sisters, observe their community work and environmental activism and record it all for a future written project. Myslivy has already found that the sisters in Concordia aren't the only ones working to care for the Earth and improve the health of the nation's food supply.

"It's a large, underground movement," Myslivy said. "I think the work is unique, and it's not getting much press."

She feels an urgency to document the work and the nuns' history before it's too late. Many of the sisters are more than 60 years old, and their way of life is changing. When they were young, there were not as many options available for women, leading many to a life in service of the church. Fewer young women are joining the sisterhood today, and the numbers of convents in small towns such as Concordia are dwindling.

Myslivy said she hopes the project is the first of many and hopes to secure funding to expand the oral history project to include other convents in the state. She has learned of nuns doing similar work in communities such as Atchison, Great Bend and Wichita.

She plans to continue taking graduate classes in religious studies through the tuition assistance program. Her goal is to continue researching the intersection of religion and environmentalism in Kansas. She gives credit to Tim Miller and the Religious Studies Department, Jensen Sundstrom, Wilson and, of course, the Nazareth Convent and Academy for making the project possible.

"They're amazing women," she said of the nuns. "Throughout history, nuns have always been at the forefront of working for what's right. It only makes sense that they'd be fighting for the Earth now." 

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2011